'Because of our government, our country is divided'

He greets me in the living room, padding around in a tracksuit and socks. The house is in a bit of a mess, and he apologises – they’re clearing up the remains of an album launch party over the weekend. He and his manager are in high spirits. Three days earlier, they released Ethiopia, his fifth studio album; it had a record $650,000 recording budget, was the fastest-selling record in the country’s history, and topped Billboard’s world albums chart. Teddy’s relief is palpable – the release was beset by delays – as he settles into a chair and begins outlining his philosophy. “Art is closer to magic than logic,” he says, beaming cheerfully.

It is difficult to overstate Teddy Afro’s popularity and importance in Ethiopia today. “His level of celebrity is simply unprecedented,” says Heruy Arefe-Aine, the organiser of the country’s Ethiopian Music festival.

Ethiopia has long had a remarkably unified pop music culture – a national canon heard on buses and in bars across the country – but even in this context, Teddy stands out. He is the only artist of his generation to have risen to the level of Mahmoud Ahmed and Aster Aweke, the two greats of post-1960 Ethiopian pop, but at home at least he has comfortably outrun them both. Moreover, his significance reaches well beyond national borders: his popularity among the 2-million-strong Ethiopian diaspora, especially in the US, is unparalleled. The Ethio-Canadian R&B singer the Weeknd has cited him as a major influence.

But he is also a controversial figure. In 2008, he was imprisoned for a hit-and-run offence, which he has always denied he was responsible for. Many regard the jail sentence as a politically motivated move by Ethiopia’s authoritarian government, and a reaction to his 2005 album Yasteseryal, released in the year of a hotly disputed election. The lead single, whose video featured archive footage of the former emperor Haile Selassie and the bloody revolution that followed his reign, was interpreted by many as an indictment of everything that followed the emperor’s demise, including the current regime.

He became, perhaps somewhat unintentionally, a flag-waver for the Ethiopian opposition, a reputation he has maintained. The song is still, for all practical purposes, banned.

He makes for an unlikely political radical, and indeed his manager makes clear from the outset that politics is off the agenda. But he is nonetheless keen to explain the new album’s message. Lyrics are everything in Ethiopian music, and his – rich in idiom, allusion and wordplay – have excited his fans ever since he broke on to the scene in the early 00s. He argues that the country, under a state of emergency after violent anti-government protests last year, is slipping backwards. “We used to be a model for Africa,” he says, “but, because of our government, our country is divided.” The album is a call for unity and the rehabilitation of Ethiopia’s glorious past. “This younger generation is in a dilemma about their history,” he continues. “I feel a responsibility to teach them about the good things from their history. They should be proud of their achievements.”

Teddy Afro on stage in New York.

Glancing references to the government aside, this is fairly inoffensive stuff. But in fact the politics are tricky. At the centre of the album is the story of Emperor Tewodros II, a 19th-century warrior-king whose rule is often seen as marking the beginning of modern Ethiopian history. “He fought and died for this country,” says Teddy, gesturing at a painting of the monarch on the living room wall, and pointing out that they share the same name. But the problem for many of Teddy’s critics is that his is a fiercely disputed view of that history. To many modern Ethiopians, Tewodros represents feudalism and imperialism. To some, his rule was characterised by the conquest and subjugation of other ethnic groups. But to his supporters, he united the country and resisted European colonialism.

Teddy’s previous album, Tikur Sew, released in 2012, did something similar for an even more controversial figure, Emperor Menelik II, hero of the Battle of Adwa in 1896, which saw the defeat of the invading Italians, but also the man responsible for the conquest of much of modern-day Ethiopia. Teddy, like Tewodros, Menelik and Selassie, hails from the Amharic-speaking part of Ethiopia; his critics see him as peddling a sort of nostalgic Amhara nationalism. His living room also contains an original sword belonging to Menelik, the old imperial flag, and a photograph of Selassie. “The younger generation need to know what our fathers did for this country,” he says. “It is clear that Menelik fought for Ethiopia, for unity, and against colonialism.”

 

Although the album Ethiopia contains an eclectic mix of influences (the second track, Semberé, could be by Manu Chao), and lyrics in several of Ethiopia’s 88 languages, Teddy remains in many ways an Amhara musician. He recalls sitting as a young child on the knee of Hirut Bekele, a popular Amhara vocalist from the 60s and 70s, as she performed in small clubs in Addis Ababa. “She was like a queen,” he remembers. His early work was reggae-infused but in his recent albums he has returned to a more recognisably Ethiopian sound, though funkier and insistently catchy. Traditional vibrato vocals, the itchy triplets of traditional Amharan rhythms, highly polished synth-heavy production: all this is the language of modern Ethiopian pop.

The latter has often been a source of frustration to Ethiopia’s musical old guard, who lament the lack of instrumentation among the younger generation, although Teddy points out that a live band plays on the album’s final track. He is a child of two musicians – his mother was a dancer who toured the world, his father a songwriter for a police orchestra in 50s Addis Ababa – but he came of age in the 80s under the military regime known as the Derg, when live music all but disappeared as a result of a strict overnight curfew that lasted for 16 years. Like most pop stars of his generation who began their career amid the heady post-Derg optimism of the late-90s club circuit, Teddy sings and plays keyboard.

It is perhaps for this reason that Teddy is almost unheard of beyond Ethiopia and its diaspora. Despite its distinctly Ethiopian vernacular, his music is still pop: cosmopolitan and perfect for dancing to. Musicians such as Mahmoud Ahmed or Mulatu Astatke (the father of Ethiopian jazz) appeal to western audiences drawn to a more exotic sound, complete with live bands. Teddy doesn’t offer that. But in any case, his focus is closer to home. “This is a dangerous time,” he says. “My priority now is Ethiopia.”

Share this post

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to StumbleuponSubmit to TechnoratiSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn
Rate this item
(2 votes)

62697 comments

  • car insurance quotes Livonia MI

    car insurance quotes Livonia MI - Sunday, 24 March 2019

    Esta é a guerra contra o Maligno desejada por Nosso Senhor e Salvador Jesus Cristo!Que São Miguel Arcanjo príncipe de seus exércitos celestiais nos proteja com seu escudo através da recitação dos terços, nossa arma espiritual poderosa prometida por Nossa Senhora em Fátima.Que mais argumentos doutrinais e morais esclareçam nossa razão, como neste blog, Jorge Ferraz, no qual agradeço, pois iluminando nossa razão fortalecemos nossa Fé.Um abraço fraterno e em comunhão de orações em JMJ,Sandra Regina Sabella.

  • favarte

    favarte - Sunday, 24 March 2019

    nike air force 1 puerto rico sko coach nomad hobo eggplant directions nike blazer low schwarz pink adidas ultra boost 3.0 green red versace belt replica mackage jacket black friday 30
    favarte http://www.favarte.com/

  • bermudabrands

    bermudabrands - Sunday, 24 March 2019

    prada loafers blue yesterday mulberry bayswater leather clutch jacket adidas rose hommes jaune hermes lindy 26cm nike air force 1 puerto rico sko coach crossbody rivet dakota flap
    bermudabrands http://www.bermudabrands.com/

  • gotopaycheck

    gotopaycheck - Sunday, 24 March 2019

    ray ban clubmaster aluminum cheap links of london charm gold double deckerlinks of london friendship braceletsuk official online shop nike lebron 14 gold pink mackage crossbody bag prada price womens the north face windstopper jacket pattern black prada star sunglasses
    gotopaycheck http://www.gotopaycheck.com/

  • lebosmartlipo

    lebosmartlipo - Sunday, 24 March 2019

    ray ban cats vintage polo ralph lauren crew neck sweatshirt navy game oakley half jacket sunglasses polarized bvlgari eternity ring nike lebron 14 gold pink mackage bag xx band
    lebosmartlipo http://www.lebosmartlipo.com/

  • viagradc

    viagradc - Sunday, 24 March 2019

    black purple womens nike air max invigor shoes hermes kelly sellier price nike air force 1 puerto rico sko coach bag patch products yellow white womens nike free 5.0 shoes new balance 998 colombia
    viagradc http://www.viagradc.com/

  • kmkonka

    kmkonka - Sunday, 24 March 2019

    adidas white rose gold superstar nike jets 25 calvin pryor green stitched elite rush jersey nike sb lunar gato nl hermes scarf ebay uk air jordan 14 mens black grey roshe run grey orange
    kmkonka http://www.kmkonka.com/

  • yourctt

    yourctt - Sunday, 24 March 2019

    ray ban clubmaster black and silver mulberry classics visa clot x nike air max 1 kiss of death 2 men parajumpers jacket baseball patch burberry scarf sale ebay hermes micro rivale bracelet
    yourctt http://www.yourctt.com/

  • zanascuisine

    zanascuisine - Sunday, 24 March 2019

    nike mercurial vapor ix fg purple volt hermes mini so kelly bag
    zanascuisine http://www.zanascuisine.com/

  • reprebates

    reprebates - Sunday, 24 March 2019

    adidas white rose gold superstar nike jets 25 calvin pryor green stitched elite rush jersey nike sb lunar gato nl hermes scarf ebay uk air jordan 14 mens black grey roshe run grey orange
    reprebates http://www.reprebates.com/

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.

Information for All

Go to top